Hunter Reynolds knows what to say if he’s pulled over by police.
In high school, he was instructed by his mother to tell them he attended Don Bosco Prep, a renowned Catholic high school in New Jersey.
When he got to college, the message changed slightly.
“It was, ‘Make sure you tell them you go to the University of Michigan,’ so they don’t just think you’re some kid who’s on the streets all day,” Reynolds recalled. “Even if I was, that doesn’t mean I should be killed for having a broken taillight.
“That’s just the reality — that when you encounter a police officer, as a Black man, you kind of have to paint yourself in the best light possible, because if you don’t, it might be the last time you’re ever alive.”
Because of his skin color, Reynolds, a Black student-athlete for Michigan football, understands race relations in America to an extent that many cannot — and that’s why he’s now part of the Big Ten’s Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition.
Formally announced June 15, the coalition was created in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck while Floyd — on his stomach — said he could not breathe.
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The coalition states its goal “is to seek tangible ways to actively and constructively combat racism and hate around the world while also empowering student-athletes to express their rights to free speech and peaceful protest.”
It features athletes and coaches from every Big Ten school. At Michigan, the football team has three representatives: Reynolds, linebacker Adam Shibley and coach Jim Harbaugh.
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Reynolds and Shibley (who is white) were approached by Claiborne Green, the director of football academic services, to represent the university on the coalition. The the first virtual meetings are scheduled for this weekend (Shibley participated in a call Thursday night) and the coalition has yet to dive into specifics.
Reynolds wants to continue the “dialogue that’s occurred throughout the country in these last few weeks” since Floyd’s death. He hopes that will lead to more “tangible changes.” He wants white people to understand that Floyd’s death was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” and says the recent nationwide protests aren’t simply the reaction to one man’s death — but the reaction to “numerous systemic issues plaguing the country for centuries.”
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“I think it’s been great, the conversations that have been had and the interest and the amount of publicity and the conversations that have been coming from everything that’s going on in our country right now,” Shibley said. “But I think Maria Taylor from ESPN said it best. She said, ‘It’s no longer about having uncomfortable conversations. We now have to hold people accountable. It’s no longer good enough to just not be racist. We have to be anti-racist.’
“I think getting people on our campus more aware and not only getting them to talk but to change their actions is one of the biggest things I’m hoping for.”
Already, the team has had internal conversations about race relations and police brutality. A team Zoom call originally meant to outline the program’s return to football evolved into an open discussion, due to Harbaugh’s prompting. The next day, the players and coaches attended an anti-police brutality protest in Ann Arbor.
“A lot of guys felt free to speak up and felt comfortable enough to share their feelings and emotions,” Shibley said. “Some teammates have shared personal stories that they’ve dealt with with police interrogating them and giving them a hard time just because of the color of their skin.”
Briana Nelson, a member of the women’s track and field team and a good friend of Shibley, is creating a student organization called Wolverines Against Racism (WAR) that will seek to “unify all student-athletes.”
Within college football, Iowa dealt with allegations from current and former players that there was anti-Black animus within the program. Reynolds said Thursday that one of his high school teammates was one of the Hawkeye players who spoke out against former strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle. Reynolds’ ex-teammate said Doyle would “send him back to the streets.” Doyle was placed on administrative leave before mutually parting ways with Iowa on June 15.
“Knowing him personally, it just shows the perception there can be — a lot of implicit bias,” Reynolds said. “He’s not even from the streets. You got to know a kid through recruiting, you got to know him through being around him every day through workouts, and just to say something so ignorant is mind-blowing.”
Reynolds, too, is no stranger to those kind of remarks. Over time, he’s realized that some of the remarks he and other Black teammates received earlier in their lives consisted of racist stereotypes.
“It was just things that you were conditioned to hear, such as someone saying, ‘Oh, you’re pretty articulate for a Black kid,’ or, ‘I didn’t think you were affluent or from a good area,’ ” Reynolds said. “When you hear stuff like that, it just makes you think, like, are Black people not supposed to speak well and be articulate? Are they not supposed to come from affluent areas or have nice things in life?
“I think that’s one of the things we’ve been talking about — just trying to break those stereotypes and have people realize that they might be preconditioned to think certain things, but the things they think can be harmful and that they need to change.”
Reynolds and Shibley both said they were pleased with Harbaugh’s stance against racism and police brutality. Shibley said Harbaugh was a role model of how to be a good ally. Reynolds is glad Harbaugh didn’t hesitate to express his views and protest with the team.
“Some people would kinda be afraid because there’s a section of people out there, if they see people participating in a Black Lives Matter movement, they would shout All Lives Matter and say, ‘We’re not rooting for Michigan anymore, we can’t tolerate politics in sports,’ even though it’s not political,” Harbaugh said, “and I think Coach Harbaugh doing that is just showing that he’s not going to cater to those groups of people. He’s going to do what he thinks is right.”
Reynolds and Shibley recognize there’s a lot of work ahead of them. They are still in the planning stages with the coalition. They’ve also spoken with teammates and have gathered that “a lot of people” are either planning to protest or use their platform to voice opinions when the season begins.
“A lot of my teammates have come up to me and talked about what they want to do,” Shibley said. “We’ve discussed it. A lot of the white players are starting to think about if we do kneel, should they do it? That’s going to be an interesting conversation. Going forward, I just hope the team — whatever we decide, that we can come together and do it as one team and be unified in our actions.”
Reynolds is hopeful that change is on the horizon. He has already been pleased with the action that white teammates like Shibley have taken. And with their status as players on Michigan’s most well-known sports team and members of the Big Ten’s new coalition, Reynolds and Shibley are hoping to bring about even more change.
“Well, I think we are realizing that some athletes have hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram, on Twitter,” Reynolds said. “Millions of people watch our games every weekend. So, I think we’re starting to realize that we’re the ones who bring money into the schools. And so, when things are going on that are slaps in the face to us, we’re kind of realizing now that we don’t have to tolerate the disrespect. We can change things that we don’t like.”